Throughout history, muses of different incarnations have idealized the aesthetic of their era. The word muse comes from the Greek word mouses, which literally translates to “song” or “poem.” Ancient mythology defines muses as divine beings that inspire the creation of art. During the Renaissance and Neoclassical periods, they were depicted in sculptures and paintings with identifiable emblems that embody specific forms of art.
These days, muses walk amongst the mortals—they are models, of varying shape and form, whose sheer presence molds the aesthetic of their time. While models are highly regarded as untouchable modern goddesses, they are not mythological imaginings of the past, but are true flesh-and-blood women living in the now and possessing unparalleled influence in society. Models have reached iconic status, inspiring the fashion of their respective eras.
At the end of World War II, women longed to look glamorous and, hence, the golden age of haute couture ignited in Paris. Sparking the return to regalia was the first ever supermodel Lisa Fonssagrives, wife of the famed fashion photographer Irving Penn. With her haughty and angular appearance, Fonssagrives rose as the aspirational beauty of her time and embodied the new ideal of feminine artifice. Inspired by her ultra-femme frame, French fashion designer Christian Dior created designs in a more voluptuous outline as opposed to the boxy fabric-conserving shapes of World War II styles. Fonssagrives was the perfect clothes hanger to showcase Dior’s sophisticated creations. Carmel Snow, the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar at the time, called Dior’s ideal as the “New Look”. The silhouette was curvaceous—the hip padded “Bar” jacket, bustier bodices and petticoats that flare out from the waist projecting an image of moneyed maturity. Fonssagrives led the pack of the first ever supermodels consisting of Dovima, Suzy Parker, Sunny Harnett and Dorian Leigh—all of whom imbibed the ostentatious glamour of the 50s captured in timeless images by luminary lensmen such as Penn, Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, George Hoyningen-Huene, Man Ray and Horst. Aristocratic was the look du jour and their elegant beauty helped reinforce Dior’s “New Look,” which revolutionized how women dressed and re-established Paris as the center of the fashion world in the 50s.
London was the arena of the cultural movement that focused on a more youthful modernist ideal in the 60s. Then-Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland dubbed the phenomenon as Youthquake, a time that teenagers dominated the scene. Designer Mary Quant introduced the world to a decidedly shorter skirt—the mini skirt, now a closet staple of every woman. Other designers followed suit and the hemlines as the years went on got higher and higher, and by 1968 it had reached above mid-thigh. Quant, Paco Rabanne, Pierre Cardin, Rudi Gernreich and André Courrèges created fashions that were fun and spirited, synonymous to the personalities of models Twiggy, Wilhelmina, Edie Sedgwick, Jean Shrimpton, Peggy Moffitt, Colleen Corby and Penelope Tree who were all the rage at the time. The girls had an adolescent physique that was the perfect frame for the androgynous styles that defined the 60s. Best known for her thin boyish frame, short pixie cut and doe eyes, Twiggy’s fragile 91-pound frame was the perfect silhouette for the androgynous and leg baring styles of the time. The British newspaper Daily Express declared her as the “Face of ’66” being able to establish herself as a global phenomenon and, therefore, an integral part of pop culture history.
Coming into the 70s, there was the point when the Brit-centric mod looks felt tired, such that an all-American aesthetic took over the reigns. New York was the place to be seen and American fashion designer Roy Halston and his girls dominated the fashion world. Dubbed by Newsweek as “the premier fashion designer of all America,” Halston created designs that evoked the grandeur of a sensuous jetset luxe lifestyle. His glamour girls Bianca Jagger, Anjelica Huston, Karen Bjornson, Pat Cleveland and Jerry Hall all personified the flamboyant decadence of the disco era. Collectively the girls were known as Halstonettes for their close affiliation with the designer. They were seen perched on the balcony of Studio 54, clothed in his luxurious decade-defining looks of simple, unstructured body-grazing goddess dresses that provided a disclosure of the body, projecting visions of hedonistic lifestyle in the infamous discothèque.
The 80s idealized a different sense of glamour with the advent of the supermodels. Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington were dubbed as the “Trinity” appearing in global campaigns for designers, most notably Versace, that banked on their larger-than-life identities. True to Italian fashion, Gianni Versace was all about over-the-top personality, thus his close relationship with the girls. The supermodels could morph into a different persona at work yet still managed to convey their priceless, individual distinction. They managed to turn their careers into a multi-million dollar enterprise from hawking designer clothing, to becoming a marketing force and blowing up into full-fledged celebrities.
By the mid-1990s, a radical shift from glamorous beauty to the rebel chic came in the person of Kate Moss. She idealized the anti-supermodel waif aesthetic in contrast to the curvaceous and tall figures of Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson and Claudia Schiffer. She was the perfect embodiment of the reductive simplicity of Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Helmut Lang and Perry Ellis. Moss wasn’t the typical 18-year-old; she had the veneer of an old soul and a youthful sense of humor to match.
A surprisingly turn of events followed in the early 2000s in which models are now an anonymous bunch of replicated perfection, thus allowing the clothing to supersede all. There is an idea of neutrality in models now—barely there makeup, no expression, like a robot. Emaciated waifs from Eastern Europe have become the favored look for fashion, leaving few models who are aspirational enough to merit celebrity status. To present day, few people look up to the current batch of models so much so that there is a trending away from models in favor of celebrities for consumer-driven campaigns and publications that translate to increased sales. Celebrities have become both aspirational and relatable through the Internet, where we are constantly updated with a stream of information that enables us to identify ourselves with them while aspiring to be like them. Just think how many Manolo Blahnik heels were sold to women that identified themselves with the shoe-obsessed Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City. Given their present standing, models still fulfill a need that celebrities cannot compete with. Adaptability is the models’ biggest asset. It is their ability to personify different forms of imagery that makes them irreplaceable in the fashion industry.
Most recently, the momentous return of the supermodels have injected a much needed jolt in fashion. The public awaits what the future has in store and taking us into what’s next are the models. They are almost magical, much like the beautiful deities of Greek mythology, they conjure states of mind and mood taking artists into nirvana. With a mere gesture, models sum up the attitude of their time—becoming not only muses to designers and photographers, but muses to a generation. It is reciprocal a relationship between high fashion and evolving ideals of beauty and the power of clothing, fashion photography and the model to project the look of an era conveying cultural change and significant turning points in society.